Many years ago, I read an article about career progressions and how we had been doing it incorrectly for years. It was much more about careers than work-life balance. The article said that, on average, your first job was your least senior and lowest paid job, but your final job will be your most senior and highest paid job in approximately a straight line. At retirement, you transition from full-time, highly paid, high-pressure work, to retirement, day-time TV, and bored beyond belief. A better career path would be more like a bell curve where, in your mid-40s, you have your most senior and highest paid job, and you slowly work down the other side of the curve doing less senior and lower paid jobs. I liked the idea of this.
In my mid-40s, I was World-Wide Director of Presales, commuting to the centre of London, working long hours (including weekends if required), and earning much more than the average salary. Both my children were under ten and I did not see much of them except at weekends. Also in winter, I left the house when it was dark and arrived back home after it was dark, so I saw no weekday daylight. A direct competitor to my employer at the time, had made a few enticing offers to recruit me. I had been turning them down for about 6 months.
A colleague was going through an amical divorce at the time, and he used to leave London early on Wednesdays so he could put his kids to bed at his soon-to-be ex-wife’s house. One day, it occurred to me that he was seeing his kids more than I was seeing mine and he was part-way through a divorce. I decided to work down the other side of the bell curve by telling the competitor I would join their company but only part-time in a less senior roll and, of course, on a much lower salary. They accepted and I started there on three days per week and on a 40% paycut.
On reflection, I should have gone for four days per week and worked down to three. It was a big change, and I experienced a few issues that took some time to resolve.
The first issue I faced was switching off. For some reason, I had it in my mind that, as I was doing my proper job for three days per week, I had loads of time to do other stuff. I found myself saying, “yes, I have loads of time, I can do that extra stuff”. It seems stupid now, but for some reason it made perfect sense at the time. The way I eventually managed to switch off was because I did not have a personal laptop and using the work’s laptop on my two days off meant I would see emails and notifications and end up “just sorting out a couple of things” that would turn into several hours of unpaid work. What I did is purchased a laptop hard drive and built a Linux system on it. On my days off, I would take out the work’s hard drive and replace it with my personal one. There was no way to read email.
To make it easier for people to know when I was available and when I was off, I decided to work Monday-Wednesday. I added diary settings and made Thursday and Friday unavailable. It made it easier for everybody to know when I was out, all except Salespeople. For some reason Salespeople don’t understand the term “unavailable”. Maybe they think, “I am sure he will cancel his other meetings and make himself available for my sales stuff as it is the most important thing in the company”. Eventually, I got through to salespeople by changing it from “unavailable” to “not paid”. Money talks, right?
Another issue was thinking I was still in charge. In taking this new job, I had dropped a couple of grades so my boss in the new company would have been someone I would have managed in my old company. During meetings it was hard not to interrupt my boss and say, “a better way to approach this would be to …”, or “in my experience, …”. I found out later that my boss had been quite intimidated by having me as a direct report. Eventually, I learned to hold my tongue and offer advice when I was asked. It also helped by taking on more of the easy more junior, and often more tedious, tasks.
Although not really a problem, I soon found I had too much holiday to use. It is very easy to go away for a long weekend when your weekends are longer than your working week. All the times I had taken a couple of days here or there for various reasons, did not require using up holiday. There are also loads of public holidays so sometimes by booking just a few days off, I would be out of the office for weeks. There is also the issue, if you can call it an issue, of using up the correct number of public holidays. My original plan was to work Tuesday-Wednesday but that misses quite a few public holidays, and I would have to take these as extra days, disrupting the habit of working the same days each week to help everyone else know when I was not at work. As many of the Bank holidays are on Mondays, working Monday-Wednesday meant I would take some of the public holidays automatically. It was much easier to adjust a day or two to my vacation days to cover anything extra I need to work or take off depending on which days of the week Christmas and New Year fell.
What did not turn out to be a problem, but I worried about to start with, was income. To go from five to three days per week was a 40% pay cut. I was worried it might be too much. What I forgot to take into account, is I also reduced the cost of going to work by 40%, that is travel costs, buying lunch and all those expensive coffees I seemed to get through in a day.
The thing that amused me the most is the annual career appraisal. It’s great to appraise yourself as 100% across the board in all areas doing a job that you find very easy to do. Nobody can argue with the 100% because they know you used to do far harder roles. The best part is complaining to HR about the forms you have to complete that there is no option in the career progression section for “fewer responsibilities, less money, demotion to a more junior role”. I also enjoyed filling in the “what additional skills do you need” section with “for the next part of my career, I need to forget things I already know”.
So, where am I on the bell curve now? As I approach sixty years of age, I am working two days per week. I still make Monday one of the working days to accommodate public holidays. My current employment contract still says I am entitled to all the public holidays rather than the pro-rata number, but I keep within the spirit of the contract and adjust my days off including public holidays to two fifths of the full-time equivalent. I also earn a tiny fraction of what I used to earn, but my expenses are much lower now my children are adults. What does surprise me is how little income tax I pay now that I don’t earn much. My plans are to continue working for at least the next few years. Maybe I will drop down to one day per week but two days per week seems a good balance of doing paid work but still having a lot of free time. A friend of mine pointed out that over the years I have exchanged five working days with two days off, for two working days with five days off. I have spent twenty-four years working full-time and fourteen years part-time, so my bell curve is hardly symmetrical. Maybe I just need to work part-time for another ten years to make each side match.
I am glad I decided to work part-time when I did. I know I missed out on a lot of money but I always think of it this way; when you hear about someone who does not have long to live, they never say, “I wish I had spent more time at work”.